Reading the morning news, I came across an article about viruses. In 1992, a bunch of scientists were at a meeting convened by NASA to discuss the possibility that life exists on planets other than Earth and how they should go about looking for it. This had already been the topic of much discussion for years and this meeting was a continuation of that discussion.

However, this time it didn’t take very long for one of the participants to make a very fundamental observation; basically, that perhaps before talking about how to go about looking for life, they should take a step back and define what they were looking for. What constitutes life?

What they eventually settled on was that “life is a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution.” Suffice to say, it may have enabled the meeting to come to a close, but it was just one in a series of such definitions to come from future meetings and discussions.

Indeed, the definition has been repeatedly changed since then, as science understands more and more about the world.

This made me think about one of the mainstays in the vocabulary of the climate crisis: the word “sustainability.” What is it?

Work on reducing the harm from predicted negative effects of the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere had an early focus on increasing energy efficiency and the development of renewable sources of, primarily, electricity. Along the way, policies and actions were expanded to embrace reduction or elimination of all fossil fuels, with goals of net-zero energy being one good example of an overarching goal for alignment of policies and actions.

More recently, at least in my view, the discussion also has evolved to include as a goal, “sustainability.” I’m not sure we know what that means, at least I don’t, for a local entity like a city or county, but I’m pretty certain it encompasses more than just energy usage, watts and therms. It seems to target a more complete and complex reimagining, sort of how we can preserve life on the planet, and a pleasant life at that.

The U.N. World Commission on Environment and Development identifies sustainability as a “complex concept” and defines it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

More broadly, or maybe more specifically, the UCLA Sustainability Committee defines sustainability as “the integration of environmental health, social equity, and economic vitality in order to create thriving, healthy, diverse and resilient communities for this generation and generations to come. The practice of sustainability recognizes how these issues are interconnected and requires a systems approach and an acknowledgement of complexity.”

It seems that both of these definitions, and there are many more, imply an assumption of global scale necessary for actions and policies since the systems involved that need to be modified to meet the challenges embedded in these definitions, are beyond the reach or jurisdiction of individual nations, not to mention states, counties, cities, or for that matter individuals.

Very little effective infrastructure currently exists to meet the goal of a sustainable planet. Nations differ in political and economic systems and self-interest such that competition is more the norm than cooperation towards a mutual goal of sustainability. Food systems, water availability, environmental and ecological health, not to mention equity, diversity, and resilience are equally subject to these same forces of division.

So what to do? Two things: one, an idea, the other an action.

First the idea. I listened to a presentation by our own local wise man, Kim Stanley Robinson, who (forgive my shorthand description) sees unavoidable doom ahead of us if we continue to prioritize profit as the outcome of any economic activity. He proposes we examine modern monetary policy to basically create trillions of dollars in “Carbon Coins” that would reward investments or actions to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, while also creating jobs and promoting equity. This is novel, at least to me, and there’s more to learn, but it’s the first thing I’ve come across that appears feasible and could actually operate on a global level to meet the climate and environmental crises.

And now for the action. The Yolo County board of supervisors has set in motion a process to pursue sustainability. It has begun by reaching out to the cities of Davis, Woodland, Winters and West Sacramento to make this a regional effort and is intentionally building equity and social justice into not only the creation of a plan but also the plan’s implementation.

Aligning local action to complement global goals is not an easy task. Our county is subject to forces beyond its control (state and local policies, water and food systems, energy policy and usage, air pollution, and economic forces, to name a few) that limit the effectiveness of both policies and actions. Still, trees grow from seeds and Yolo County is planting a big one right here in the middle of the Central Valley.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month in The Davis Enterprise.

Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise

Published online on March 3, 2021 | Printed in the March3, 2021 edition on page A3